Interviews

Painting and Poetry: In Conversation with Archie Rand

by Samuel Jablon on April 21, 2014

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John Yau / Archie Rand, “Mark Rothko don’t know” (1987) (all images courtesy the artist)

The painter Archie Rand has spent decades collaborating with poets. These collaborations are successful because Archie loves poets, and poets love Archie — his work is infused with poetry. Archie has collaborated with John Yau, John Ashbery, and Robert Creeley, just to name a few. (Yau is an editor of Hyperallergic Weekend.) I was curious as to what compels him to work with poets and poetry, as well as what he thinks about the current relationship between art and poetry.

Archie Rand currently has work exhibited in Thought Bubblesa group show at Rhombus Space in Red Hook, Brooklyn on view through April 27.

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Samuel Jablon: How did you start working with poets?

Archie Rand: My father used to read poetry to me and he painted fairly well. He worked six days a week from 8am to 10pm and I rarely saw him. Art and language became my ways of being close. As a child I was impressed when I saw a WPA artist, turned word bubble cartoonist, who barely eked out a living — and in elementary school my friend and I did a parody of MAD that when distributed got us thrown out of class. So text was always there. One day, in high school, I spent a cherished private afternoon with alum Maurice Sendak who was being honored by the school.

As editor of the high school art/lit mag we pasted up drawings and poetry on the same page so it felt normal to see that. While in high school I started my decade long gig working at The Record Centre on West 8th Street — where The 8th Street Bookstore was only a few feet from my job. I spent my dinner breaks looking over the chapbooks in the balcony. In 1965 my friend Ross Feld, who edited the CCNY art/lit mag “Promethean” asked me for a cover drawing for an issue that I think contained work by George Oppen, Denise Levertov, Gil Sorrentino and Paul Blackburn.

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John Yau / Archie Rand, “I climbed out of the vat of self-indulgence and sang the blues” (1987)

Around that time, at Slugs’, I made a friend who was crashing with Allen Ginsberg and he invited me to have dinner with Allen and Peter at the Five Spot. There, I doodled on a napkin and then they both scribbled something on it. I wanted to pocket the napkin but was embarrassed and it stayed on the table when we left. In retrospect they probably expected me to take it. I remembered it looked like a finished work and that incident left a great impression on me. The friend then introduced me to Gil Sorrentino and my closeness with the St. Mark’s crowd was supported by my friendship with Ross, who was seen as a prodigy among the poets.

SJ: What writers were you in conversation with?

AR: The writers I saw fairly regularly at St. Marks Church and the bars: The Ninth Circle, 55, The Lions Head, The Annex, McSorley’s, The New Cedar, The Riv, The White Horse, were my friends Ross and Gil, Paul Blackburn, Joel Oppenheimer, Fielding Dawson, Pete Martin, Sam Abrams, Amiri Baraka, and occasionally Robert Creeley. When we migrated from The Ninth Circle to Max’s, essayist Donald Phelps and novelist Rudy Wurlitzer became regular drinkers with us. John Chamberlain, Larry Zox and some others would hang out to validate this group as a mix of poets and artists… but it was mostly the poets — who were very welcoming to painters.

SJ: Why poetry?

AR: Although Pop, Minimalism, Color Field and Conceptual Art were all in full swing my bar mentors were shaggier, overlapping with and not far removed from those depicted in Fred McDarrah’s “The Artists’ World”. These were people blind to the swell of cash presently pouring into other painters’ pockets. The feeling was, as Creeley said referring to Williams, “he’d rather go off and die like a sick dog than be a well-known literary person in America”. As poets remain unpaid workers there is a perverse comfort in the façade of integrity, promised as resulting from that misfortune, which beckons me to trust their company. The idea of a strategy is still alien to poets. There is no dock to swim to as Creeley says.

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John Ashbery / Archie Rand, “I can relate to that mattress” from Heavenly Days Illuminated (2001)

SJ: When you were coming up, did you see a lot of poets and artists collaborating?

AR: Aside from those star-level artists I met through the generosity of Larry Poons, for whom I worked as an assistant, the painters with whom I drank were mainly Black Mountain/10th Street types who brought with them a post-war, sentimental reverence for artist/poet equanimity and collaboration, most notably the Hartigan, Bluhm, de Kooning and Kline relationships with O’Hara. I think that in Jacket, magazine a few years ago, there was a Jargon Society checklist and the number of artists aligning themselves with poetry from the early 50’s on was astounding. New York was, among many other things, a post-bac Black Mountain and guys I met when I was in my teens like Dan Rice and Fee Dawson made me feel that these painter/poet partnerships were a mainstream activity. At that time there was a flood of self-published books, The Mimeo Revolution, where poets and painters of different stripes, from New York School poets and beats would be working with Pop and representational painters. George Schneeman and Joe Brainard were leaders in that wave while the Olsonians and Bay Area crew displayed other pedigrees. As Ross later commented, it seemed like every poet had to have a painter friend in order to be valid.

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John Ashbery / Archie Rand, “Now does this remind you of anything?” from Heavenly Days Illuminated (2001)

In 1967 I saw in the Paris Review a graphic poem by Joe Brainard and Kenward Elmslie that blew me away and remains influential on my painting. The Vietnam War brought out people with large handwritten signs that looked like art to me. I remember that SDS used a distinctive uniform typeface for their signs. I had started showing a series of paintings that used letters, words, musician’s names and I made some paintings by copying poems, in magic marker, onto raw canvas that were influenced by the scene I just mentioned but also by On Karawa’s date paintings, Ruscha’s work and Warhol’s use of repetition.

Initially I was one of the few painters on the Max’s Kansas City softball team, the majority being writers. One of the poets and softballers who drank with us at Max’s was Joe Early who was publishing a book of his poems and he wanted some artists to make portraits of him to accompany his poems. Among the contributors were my friends Dan Rice, Fee Dawson, Gil Henderson, Mort Lucks and Peter Leventhal. Joe asked if I would do a portrait of him for his book, “The Pitch”, which came out in 1968. Artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, actors and dancers mixed socially with no barriers. It never seemed unusual for me to work with poets and poetry and I did so, in regular attempts, for many years.

SJ: How did your friendships with poets affect your practice?

AR: I developed a relationship with Tibor deNagy in 1966 and his gallery published some wonderful poetry books and became a destination for poets and oddball painters. In time, under one roof, you’d have painters Red Grooms and Fairfield Porter and poets Joe Ceravolo, and Tony Towle. Poetry and painting seemed an inseparable combination. In the mid 1970’s I became friends with John Ashbery, whose friendship with Larry Rivers normalized the notion that text and image was ok although that idea that was distasteful to my Greenbergian friends. Also around this time I developed a close friendship with Guston. Watching him work with so many poets, was ingested as being desirable and non-elitist, as I was put off by my some of my home team gurus, artists who hung with the reigning Emmerich crowd and who were pungent with the warranty of their own sophistication. I saw Philip drawing at his desk one night and asked him what he was doing and he handed me a letter, from England, where two 17-year old editors had asked him to do a cover for their poetry magazine. Seeing that extracted a lot of hubris from my toolkit while giving me license.

In the mid 1980’s John Yau and I were teaching upstate and it occurred to John that we could do some work together. I figured to de-aestheticize our work we should do zillions of collaborative pieces and see what came out. We worked happily together for years on a numerous daffy series and John facilitated many of the projects I was later to do with other poets. My habit of using a text as a springboard was strengthened by these marathon sessions with John.

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John Yau / Archie Rand, “An Illustrated Guide to Pathos” (1987)

SJ: Do you think poetry and art are natural allies, enemies, the same thing, or have nothing to do with each other? What draws you to poets?

AR: I tend to pair sculptors with novelists — and painters with poets. It occurs to me that sculptors, like novelists, use a larger social circle to enable their creations and because of that they need to be at least aware of consensus. Being a mural painter, and therefore a producer of public work, and whose murals have been destroyed, I understand both sides of this. My paintings have been censored but not harmed. During Pollock’s and Guston’s lifetime few people actually bought their offending mature works but, again, they could be scurried back into storage. What happened to Richard Serra wouldn’t happen to an easel painter because paintings are moveable and frequently have a temporary public existence. Painters and poets are more homebodies — isolatos who converse with a hypothetical audience. When you engage a dimensional reality on a plane – or string the The Jersey Turnpike in the space between two words — it all comes to the table fragrant with weariness, wanting the reprieve of exchange.

Painting and poetry remit to the interior of architecture. In that airtight space they announce a relief as a passive wisdom activates by the intimacy of engagement. A sculpture left in the street is a public monument. A painting left in the street is garbage. Poetry ripens between the boards of its covers while novels are turned into movies. Sculpture incites through recognition while poetry and paintings share an empowering that animates the subjective. Delacroix says that painters are not children who didn’t grow up but adults who never had a childhood. Quite simply, poetry provides me with an armature of belief, substituting for those endemic tribal certainties, deep-sixed in the tectonic shifts, which no longer have subscription. Poetry is, as Williams says, “news.”

Seeking location unifies the mission of the poet and painter. The poet and the painter ground us in “where.” So religions use the tools of painting and poetry to attract a coagulate from those candidates so insulated, so bereft of consolation, that they hadn’t approached community. Paintings and poetry are illusions that accept undirected dialog and as such are trustworthy, allowing entrance on whatever level the pilgrim approaches. Painting and poetry secretively extract and thereby invite while sculpture and prose declare and thereby assure. It is stories — and the stone Christ that you acknowledge and that unites and embraces the gathered, inside, within the walls of the Church. And it is the Book of Psalms — and your mute conversation with, what become your paintings, that engages and offers you rest, away from the street, alone in your house or clenched, oblivious, into a gallery space. They provide different comforts. Zero Mostel said that he had long conversations with Rembrandt rabbis. Sculpture manifests a messenger’s conduit that efficiently accepts prayer — but it doesn’t answer. Cocteau said that poetry is a machine for the manufacture of love and all of its other functions were lost on him.

Not all painters and poets need each other’s goods, as the potential for invitation is subcutaneous and must be triggered. There are painters whose work I greatly admire who don’t read anything at all. No newspapers, cereal boxes, toothpaste tubes – nothing. The poet/painter allegiance is enlisted by those who seem less absorbed into the central paste of their practice and find verification in the nod of a traveler. Melding with the poem affords a surety.

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John Yau / Archie Rand, “The art critics ball” (1987)

SJ: Could you talk about how you have used poetry in your work?

AR: Poetry provides a system-in-kind to which I can respond. If I form an association with poetry it puts a circumference on my direction that holds me to the story. A typography minor at Pratt, I handset some of Ross’ poems and found that I was drawing images onto each sheet that were not common to my hand. I was coming up with things that were prompted by the poem’s instructions.

I have been doing visual lists since beginning the “Letter Paintings” in 1967 where I was not only looking at Pollock and Matisse but also at Walkowitz’s gesture drawings of Isadora Duncan dancing. Those drawings looked to me like hieroglyphics, which then got changed into letters. Inevitably, those letters found a receptacle in poetry as I wrote out some poems as paintings. Gil Sorrentino was a generous mentor and I appreciated that his book of poems, “Splendide Hotel”, which was Gil’s biting and loving riff on Rimbaud and Williams, was laid out as an alphabet. I thought how wonderful that he had borrowed a finite form that offered to be so inventively filled. I knew that Edward Lear had illustrated his own alphabet and felt that “Splendide Hotel” called for a visual reciprocation. Gil’s book inspired a series of 500 drawings that imagined the guests of the “Splendide Hotel”. I thank Gil for verifying that I could work with the pre-existent construct that poetry provided. In 1987 I made a series of 29 large self-portraits after the 29 poems in Rilke’s Book 2 of Sonnets to Orpheus that Phyllis Kind showed in its entirety. The publisher Gervais Jassaud gave me 40 large books, all of which were printed with Clark Coolidge’s poem, “Two Or Three Things” of which I made at least 20 of those copies into different, drawn and painted reactions to the same pages of poetry. David Plante and I did what David wanted to be a persistent, endless poetry book that he titled “An Inventory Of The Country”. It is comprised of David’s text and 651 accompanying drawings.

SJ: Could you talk about your collaborations with John Yau, Robert Creeley, and John Ashbery?

AR: John Yau and I entered into my first extended live collaboration. It was his idea as he was interested in the work that O’Hara had done. Being the same age we shared experiences that allowed us a consonant exchange of whatever immediacies we could arrest on the page. At first John suggested monoprints but we found that too laborious, opting for watercolors, in which we hit our stride. They are great fun sitting somewhere between snide and genuinely endearing and never quite deciding on either. One night in a Detroit hotel we knocked off the graphic mini-novel “Mug City Moves” that I xeroxed into booklets. Later I got some copper plates and we made one-shot etchings, sort of screwing up the whole notion of what an etching can do, but that was the point, and we published them as “100 More Jokes From The Book Of The Dead”. One of my favorites is an alphabet series on stretched gold lame fabric where Joey Buttafuoco, John Wayne Bobbit, Anna May Wong, Max Jacob, Wilfredo Lam and Harry Truman end up sharing the stage. I’d love to show those paintings as a group. Steve Clay published “Movies As A Form Of Reincarnation” where John and I did a job on Boris Karloff in a series of individually treated books of John’s text. My work with John was instrumental in freeing me from the preciousness that inhabits most collaborative endeavors. Like schoolboys we both have a nasty interest in stepping on high art and we developed a Lennon/McCartney balance of vinegar and oil. Our work together felt daring and it maintains a dumb profundity because of its inability to let anyone smugly sidle up to it. It still refuses to settle.

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Robert Creeley / Archie Rand, “When you are done” from Drawn & Quartered (2001)

In 1970 I made an animated film using my reading of Robert Creeley’s “For Love” as a soundtrack and although I’d known Bob forever it was at John Yau’s prodding that we actually got together to do “Drawn & Quartered”. I ordered a stack of 54 litho plates and thought about drawing something that ran counter to Bob’s sleek language. I opted for doing drawings with a 19th century feel so that Bob would be in an unfamiliar place. Maria and I went to Buffalo where Bob had been sitting on photocopies of the images for a while. We knew that we would use this series in preparation for a show of Bob’s collaborative works at the Castellani Museum. The curator, Elizabeth Licata, said that she wanted to make huge banners from a selection of our images and hang them in the gallery – so the pressure was on. When working with a partner I was used to handing images or receiving texts in real time so I laid out all of the plates and told Bob that he could have a go at it. At first he seemed a bit shaken and I’m embarrassed to say that for a moment I had forgotten that I was working with a grand master. He scribbled a few things on a pad and then walked from plate to plate, cold – and in robotic order, writing these absolutely incredible quatrains, one after another. In one afternoon! Watching this scroll of poetry pour out of him I had the wind knocked out of me – they were such amazing poems. Attached to the pictures they made a grand product that when finished reminded me of a really, really good children’s book. The total work was not only bracing but sweet. Nourishing reportage, from both of us, without stance. I was very proud that my images had sucked these poems from him, as they are a bit off base, even for Creeley poems. Some critics think they are the best collaborations that he’d done. Steve Clay at Granary Press published these in a small book and Creeley later had these poems reprinted as a group in a collection. I was deeply honored to have worked with Creeley whose work I’d known and admired since I was a teenager. Doing this collaboration was a great gift. The expense of running off all of these plates was at first promised to me by Columbia University but they backed off after we had done the plates — so at my own expense I had a set of Iris prints made from them that Nina Freudenheim exhibited at her gallery in Buffalo. Years later, The Brodsky Center at Rutgers graciously offered to print two copies with master printer Randy Hemminghaus — one for me and one for Bob’s widow, Pen Creeley, and they are being finished as we speak.

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John Ashbery / Archie Rand, “Well what is the fucking point?” from Heavenly Days Illuminated (2001)

I had known and felt great affection and respect for John Ashbery since the mid 1970’s. In those days, as renown as he was, his poetry was received in different circles than those in which I was raised. But John’s poetry showed me an exit from all of the sagacity dribbling from Olympus with which poetry was demanding it provide for me. In John’s poetry I could be a dozing Ophelia, although gratefully and fully aware of having the water support my weight and carry me downstream. John’s poetry was a relief. And one to which I could reliably return. I often make an analogy to the music of Cecil Taylor, which I adore. At any point that you care to enter John’s work you are assured of an absolute consciousness that is on the job, alert — and will provide sustenance — and then you can let it levitate you for a while. I keep my use of Ashbery in a separate pocket. His loving relentlessness follows him as he fearlessly and continually falls down the rabbit hole. In the midst of his lostness he maintains the humor of what Kitaj calls a “diasporist”; because in John’s work, just over the horizon, promises to be the house that we know. It is an equally adult self-knowledge that is less useful if delivered from the balcony. More “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”, Ashbery’s goofiness obviates the need for the secret decoder ring and keeps his work, although topographically enormous, from being clubby. And then he gives you expanses of Corot, that construct chunks of light, space and remembrance, which weirdly, is treated in our systems in a way that parallels the way we apprehend and process visual information. Anyone who looks at John’s collages should realizes that in Ashbery, we are dealing with a dynamic visual intellect. His poems are that generous.

John’s partner, David Kermani, was my director at the Tibor deNagy Gallery and we got along very well. In fact, we had a great time together and David kept suggesting that John and I do something. Fast forward 25 years and I got a phone call from David saying John was working on a poem that he felt might be good collaboration material. It was the poem “Heavenly Days”. I spent many hours re-reading the poem and visiting John and David at their wondrous home in Hudson. After a while it dawned on me that what I thought was the voice of the poem was emanating into the rooms from the walls of the house. I told John that in response I wanted to paint pictures of the interiors of his house. I go into detail about this process in an interview that I did with Michaela Morrisette for Rain Taxi. It is my custom that whenever I look at another artist’s paintings in their studio I first spend some time looking at how they treat their floors and walls, brushes, what music and books they have, what’s on the walls, and so forth. This inspection helps me to understand their work. So, John fully understood that — and let me set up and snoop around. He watched carefully as I started to observe and record the areas and objects in the place where he lived. However I don’t think that he was prepared for the number of assaults I made on his privacy. After five paintings he asked me how many more I intended to do and I answered that I didn’t know. Being trained as a mural painter I was assembling my iconography – the things that were relevant to the poem “Heavenly Days” as translated or substituted for, by the scenes in the house. As I continued to work I watched John’s countenance change and realized that he was already formulating a response to my contribution.

John laid the paintings around the living room and re-arranged them, for weeks, while he was selecting lines from “Heavenly Days” that were not only appropriate to the images but, when sequenced, would make another reality. Not another poem but a succession of comic book frames that would make a new sense. We were aware that we were making a third thing – a “graphic poem.”

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John Yau / Archie Rand, “Once upon a time, in a far off hell…”(1987)

SJ: Besides just poetry and painting, how do you see poetry impacting the art world today? Kenneth Goldsmith comes to mind, and how he injected poetry into the MoMA.

AR: Kenny’s appointment is indicative of the administrative premonition that the curatorially directed conversation had been sapped of its lifeblood and needed to envelope the vibrant colonies. It’s a great idea. The creation of his position feels like an attempt to remedy the effects of so many artists’ Swiftian submission, after they scurried to fabricate appeasing candidates for those slivers of official concern. The inviting of poetry’s caprice into the mix is an antidote for dispersing the backlog of vying artworks that stand stupidly as quivering illustrations for lockstep critical texts. Leaden MFA programs have turned out thousands of hapless artists who have been trained to uphold some philosopher before they can enter their studios and there are now generations of artists who believe that they can put nothing but issues into their work. However, there are only a few academically sanctioned issues that you are allowed to play with and they have been stale for years. This has made much of the most touted art as predictably uninteresting as social realism. So some of the more courageous artists are peeping out from under the lid and seeing what the rest of the world looks like. One of the truths that they come upon is poetry – untouched by academic discourse. Fear of its mercurial interpretation keeps poetry out of art schools.

But there is a pitfall with poetry/art mergers. People look at paintings, while standing up and moving but poetry and illustrations are read immobile, sitting down. So poetry alongside art that is viewed vertically is disadvantaged as reading more than a sentence or two is unnatural when you’re able to walk by it. In word/image pairings the artist should reformulate an approach to make the picture as accessible as the short poem or the viewer is programmed to get caught up in the impact of the artwork — while ignoring any longer poetry. The collaborators or word-slinging artists, should be aware that artist/poet joint ventures function unexpectedly like municipal art in that they appear to declare – however they tend to announce an otherwise private observation that doesn’t reverberate but becomes absorbed. Text uses different machinery than images to activate digestion but both elements should be clean enough to effect as mutual catalysts. It is painful to note that O’Hara’s contributions are almost obliterated because the text gasps from the unclogged holes as the artists, naturally, invaded the entire property. The poetry didn’t stand a chance. I used the posters of Paul Colin as a model for successful word/picture functioning.

So my bigheaded warning to Bob Creeley was to make his contributions concise — and that I would employ graphically accessible pictures. But Bob turned out those amazing four liners in response to the pictures. He welded them on and they took over. Despite the success of “Drawn & Quartered” I still don’t recommend too much verse or too complex an image as I find it most inventive when both painter and poet, or text-based artist, offer their respective necks to each other as the effects of a true collaboration transform the result. This is the bread and butter of cartoonists but in the territorial sphere of culture such mudding of ownership is commercially confounding.

I used to feel that artists who used words needed a legitimizing poet collaborator but artists now approach language as an inheritance that needn’t be subject to the hazing of aesthetics. Recent word-based work can be delightful or a profound epitaph to language’s previous positioning. There is no trespass. We consent to misspellings, grammatical nonchalance, instant abbreviations and anagrams. Language morphs and it cannot be held to standards that no longer have domain and we reap the visual distillate of that change. Conversely, an independent interest in, and the proliferation of an audience for, poetry appears to be on the upswing. Those questions of belief that surfaced in the 1970’s are demanding pay-dirt answers in the face of an excluding art market. With a choice of many havens poetry and language are being approached to provide that mooring.

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John Ashbery / Archie Rand, “They could croon” from Heavenly Days Illuminated (2001)

SJ: Do you see a difference between text-based art and a poetry/art alliance?

AR: Along with the artists who use text there are many poets who do, mainly, collages – and really good ones. It would be great to have a show of poet’s artwork. The nature of how we address the written word has developed another dimension. Where one used to read past the symbols of typography to absorb meanings it has become an option to recognize letters and even sentences as visual elements coequal with the depiction of shapes. This is not new but it is coming to the fore. A painting, now 100 years old, by the Constructivist painter Ivan Puni, hosts in the entire painting just the neatly painted Russian word for “bath”, which is a pun on his own name. A short time ago it was possible to read irony or the tactical use of primary elements into the practice of text based art. But there is now a joy devoid of the pretense of intellectual challenge where alphabetical elements are treated as targets of fetish and curiosity, unobtrusively celebrated without testifying to an absolving motive.

The concurrent appearance of both the poetic and language-based approaches to visual art may be a retort to the decades-old academic ideology that dictates denial of a viewer interaction by placing a signifier in a triangulated construction. The point of this silliness is to prompt recognition of a position or methodology. That teachable routine has turned out a lot of things that hang on walls – and they may be passable as undergrad term papers or sociological artifacts but as art they are as anemic as they are predictable. Poetry is different. Poetry expounds faith in behavior and anticipates consequence. It fully attempts to talk and accept response. The newer text based art to some degree undermines the pontificatory, politicized textual standards that were set in the 1960’s-1980’s and veers more towards aligning with the humor and mystery in language that was always present in the uncynical works of, say, Ed Ruscha. A recent example was Loren Munk’s show, reminiscent of Tracy Emin’s diarism, that dutifully and riotously depicted, well, everything – of the not too long ago artworld. His thorough accounting didn’t show a speck of preachy dryness. What came through was affection and gratitude for the honor of depicting this memory-prodded research as both optical and even nutrition. The language/art alliance is a rediscovery of the value of poetry, and an expansion of the nature of poetry, as a container for the excised ineffable.

Thought Bubbles continues at Rhombus Space (183 Lorraine Street #33, Red Hook, Brooklyn) through April 27.

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